Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet).
I didn’t intend to read Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar on the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death, but by sheer chance, that’s what I did. It was only today when I saw an article on Brain Pickings that I made that connection. Funny how that happens. I also didn’t pick this up because I have any great knowledge of the so-called Bloomsbury Group, or even any familiarity with Virginia Woolf’s writing (I may need to rectify this). The blurb below drew me in.
London, 1905. The city is alight with change and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of brilliant, artistic friends who will come to be known as the legendary Bloomsbury Group. And at the centre of the charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter and Virginia, the writer.
Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by TheTimes. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.
But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must choose whether to protect Virginia’s happiness or her own.
Vanessa and her Sisters is a slow-building novel, one that unfolds a subtle, yet deep, story of family dynamics – specifically those between Vanessa and her sister, Virginia. It didn’t grab me right away but I persevered past that initial hump and without knowing how or when it happened, I found myself completely drawn into Vanessa’s story. I finished the book in a day.
Initially, the book appears to be Vanessa’s diary, filled with observations or reflections from the everyday variety (“Was it right to let the house in Hyde Park Gate? Will those funds, plus the income from our inheritance from Father, be enough for our yearly allowance” to the poetic (“A slice of moon lights my room”). It is her diary, but interspersed between her thoughts and descriptions are letters, telegrams and postcards from other characters, filling in some of the gaps. As a historical novel, the research sheds light on changing times, when Victorian social conventions were being challenged. Some of this is illuminating, some amusing, such as when Vanessa is shocked by the growing trend to call people by their first names, but later allows her son to call her Nessa.
The seed of betrayal is sown early, with Virginia’s need for attention common knowledge within the group. The relationship between the sisters is beautifully drawn, with love and protectiveness battling jealousy and sisterly spite. In some ways, Virginia doesn’t come across well through her often manipulative and needy behaviour, and yet, the author doesn’t write her off as a bad egg – just a flawed one. Her brilliance and “sharp, quirky mind” is referred to often by another member of the group, Lytton Strachey, who acknowledges her flaws and strengths in his correspondence to Leonard Woolf (Virginia’s future husband).
Vanessa and her Sister is a clever, intense and insightful literary novel that won’t suit everyone, but for those who like subtle, sensual writing, it’s a gem. Give it time to let the words hook you in.
Published by Bloomsbury Circus, Vanessa and her Sister is available from good bookstores. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.